What will the Patriots offense look like with rookie Mac Jones running the show?
Don’t say it … don’t say it …
It has to be said.
“I think it’s going to look a lot of what it was like under Tom Brady,” said former Jets and Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
The Patriots tried the mobile-quarterback offense last year, with Cam Newton rushing for 592 yards and leading the team with 12 touchdowns. But he struggled as a passer, and the Patriots limped to a 7-9 season that owner Robert Kraft called “horrible.”
Now, with Jones winning the job and being named the starter for the 2021 season, a sense of familiarity has been restored to Foxborough.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels won’t be calling any QB option runs for Jones, who had 35 rushes for 14 yards last year at Alabama.
The Patriots are going to try to win from the pocket again.
Jones isn’t anywhere near Brady when it comes to reading defenses, processing information, and executing in clutch situations. But Jones displayed impressive accuracy, poise, and pocket presence throughout training camp and the preseason.
In beating out Newton, Jones clearly showed Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaches that he can handle a lot of information and distribute the football from the pocket — the most important skill for an NFL quarterback.
Jones completed 69.2 percent of his passes in three exhibition games and impressed pretty much everyone across the league. Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison called Jones “the perfect quarterback for this system,” and NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger raved Tuesday about the way Jones threw with anticipation and perfect ball placement.
“I was a Mac Jones fan coming out, and he impressed me even more through the preseason, because you see his poise, his composure, and how he’s just run this offense like a veteran,” said former NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, now with SiriusXM and Pro Football Focus.
“I really think it’s not like any rookie where you’ve got to tighten the playbook up or make it shorter or smaller. I think this actually kind of expands the playbook for Josh McDaniels with how well Mac Jones can handle an offense and understand what they’re trying to do.”
Jones may be walking into an ideal situation with the Patriots. Unlike other rookie quarterbacks who join rebuilding teams, he is surrounded by an excellent offensive line, a deep stable of running backs, two legitimate tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and a versatile group of receivers that includes the speedy Nelson Agholor and sure-handed Jakobi Meyers.
Add it all up, and the Patriots will likely be a run-heavy team that strikes quickly with play-action passes, which are more preferred throws for a rookie quarterback.
“You have a scheme that’s really set up for his game,” said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, now with ESPN. “They have two downhill backs in Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, a strong offensive line, and what that leads into is obvious play-action opportunities for your quarterback where the throws are a little bit more defined.”
Having two No. 1 tight ends in Smith and Henry, who are proficient both as pass catchers and run blockers, should help Jones the most. On any given play, the Patriots can have a balanced offensive line — with a tight end on both sides — and Jones can make the decision to run or pass based on the type of personnel and alignment used by the defense.
“If a team is trying to stop the run, now you’ve got mismatches with a linebacker covering a tight end, or a nice play-action pass to the tight end down the middle,” Gradkowski said. “If they go to nickel defense with extra DBs, now your running game is stronger. So it’s just a little harder to defend as a defense.”
Of course, McDaniels is going to have to give Jones some help. It’s one thing to look good in the preseason, and quite another to do it in Week 1 against the Dolphins’ aggressive defense that is constantly disguising and changing things before the snap.
McDaniels might have to put Jones in five-receiver spread formations just to get the defense to declare its coverage. McDaniels will have to use a lot of pre-snap motion to help Jones sniff out the coverage, and the Patriots are going to have to stay committed to the run to help open up the play-action game.
“You’re going to have to have some answers for him pre-snap,” Bowen said. “We know Mac can read it out from the pocket, we know he can see it quickly, and we know he can throw it with location and accuracy. But we still have to see it happen, because he hasn’t seen an NFL defense like the Miami Dolphins and what they do pre- and post-snap.”
Gradkowski, who played from 2006-16, said the Patriots have the pieces on offense to take the pressure off Jones, particularly with the running backs and offensive line.
“I started 11 games as a rookie, and it always helped when you’re able to run the ball,” he said. “The play-action pass and everything else opens up.
“There’s not going to be as much pressure on him. He’s not going to feel like he has to do it all. How he can hurt himself is if he gets into his own way and he tries to live up to this perception that ‘I’m the next Tom Brady.’ ”
Jones may experience some growing pains as a rookie. But he has been terrific in his first training camp, and Belichick built the offense to put him in a position to succeed right away.
“Mac Jones is a smart, polished quarterback,” Tannenbaum said. “And I think he can come in, with the way they’ve improved in the offseason, and have a chance to have a meaningful impact on the AFC East this year.”